I nearly didn’t write this one.
When Dhanistha’s on Sheffield’s Abbeydale Road was replaced by another South Indian restaurant, Arusuvai, I was intrigued.
I guessed that was the name – the ‘i’ on the new sign is a red chilli.
It had only been three years since it opened and was well regarded. Since the most exciting thing on the Asian restaurant scene has been the arrival of South Indian restaurants, what had gone wrong?
“Taken over by new management and the name changed,” said the website, so we booked.
The first person we saw when we walked in was Dhanistha’s owner Dharmazeelan Periyasamy. He can hold his head up high coming from a people specialising in long names as he tells you his has 22 letters.
“Same place, same menu, same food,” said Dharm (for short) showing us a table. I had to think quickly. This page specialises in what’s new and places don’t normally get a second bite so soon.
I once cancelled a booking on arrival at a restaurant I’d previously reviewed which then hired a dazzling new chef with an exciting new menu when I found the old chef with the old menu. The new laddie had been caught with his hand in the till.
We’d been led up the garden path but where to go last minute on a Friday night? Besides, with celebrity chef Rick Stein’s recent TV series based on a houseboat moored in The Backwaters of Kerala, South Indian food is sexy. So we stayed.
Dharm has taken on a partner, physiotherapist Balaji Thangaraj (“human bones during the day, chicken bones at night,” he joked) who comes in at a modest 15 letters.
It warranted a change of name – Arusuvai means the sense of taste – something Dharm appeared to be regretting. “People don’t seem to know who we are,” he worried as the place was quiet. As the evening wore on he was all smiles. Every table in the 30-seater eaterie was occupied by former Dhanistha’s customers.
It doesn’t take much to make him smile. He beamed like a human lighthouse. I didn’t see his smile drop once.
And Dharm’s got a lot to make him happy. The food is good and the place looks smarter, with red and white wooden walls and a mural featuring the Taj Mahal, Bhuddha, a Hindu temple and a dancing girl, all India at a glance.
For those who don’t know the term South Indian cooking takes in the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadhu and the island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon.
What I didn’t know is that Yorkshire is a dead ringer for Sri Lanka, at least to Dharm, whose famiy originally came from the central province of Maskeliya but he was born in India.
“The countryside is very similar when you look over from the M62. And there’s a dam with a village under water like Ladybower,” (OK, that’s in Derbyshire but don’t let’s spoil it).”The only thing missing is the tea.” Hasn’t he heard of Yorkshire Tea?
We started with a trio of dishes: a mini dosa (£3.50), cashew nut pakoras (£4) and plain vada (£2.50), deep-fried doughtnuts made of black gram flour and flavoured with ginger and curry leaves. They were chewy and substantial.
I’d sell my granny for a dosa. You can get them as big as a roll of lino but I had a little one. It was satisfyingly crisp with a filling of potato masala which had a lemony edge. This came with a spicy sour sambar, a sort of muddy sauce, made with three different lentils, and two chutneys. The coconut one has a delayed chilli kick.
My wife is nuts about cashews. Here they were dipped in a spicy batter (mostly, some seemed to have missed) and deep-fried, 10 times better than roasted peanuts.
Chettinadu chicken curry (£6.75) is a must on the menu of South Indian restaurants and Rick Stein had it cooked for him and did it himself on his show.
At Arusuvai the menu boasts it has 16 spices. What you get is a rich, thick brown gravy with a distinctive peppery edge and complex flavours. They adjust the heat to what you want.
My Kerala-style mutton on the bone (£6.50) is only served weekends. This is a less complex dish but I loved the gutsy flavours. People fight shy of the bones but it is these which add to the flavour.
We had it with plain rice (£2.50), a lovely little spinach and coconut side dish spiced with mustard seeds (£4) and an elegant, flaky paratha (£2.50).
These were lovely flavours and there was more to come with dessert, a milky treat for those like me who mourn the disappearance of sago, the schoolboy ‘frogspawn,’ from the supermarket shelves.
We shared this dish, payasam (£3), made with vermicelli as well as sago, and ate every drop.
If you feel jaded by conventional curries you’ll find South Indian ones are a revelation. The spicing fairly sparkles.
We paid just over £35 for food (a dull lassi and a beer were £6.15) as Dharm told us he’s planning to introduce thalis.
Dhanistha’s was named after his first daughter, now aged four.
He hasn’t told her he’s changed it.